By James A. Haught
Easter came on April Fool’s Day in 2018. No wisecracks, please.
Across America, many communities hosted festive children’s Easter egg hunts with all sorts of games, treats, bunnies and hoopla. It’s wholesome family fun. But one aspect was absent: any mention of supernatural gods rising from the dead.
Part of the reason for the omission is that local governments cannot endorse religion, under America’s separation of church and state. But another factor is the secularization process: In modern, educated, science-minded societies, former miracle claims wither away. Old holy days lose their magic claims and become simply times of human enjoyment.
For example, the National Retail Federation says Americans spend $16 billion on Easter, including $2.2 billion for candy and more than $1 billion for flowers. It has nothing to do with angels and vacant tombs – tales that fewer thinking people believe. It’s just family togetherness.
In reality, Easter is more about the returning warmth of spring – green buds and sprouting flowers – that lifts the human spirit. A 2010 Barna poll asked Americans the significance of Easter, and fewer than half mentioned a supposed miraculous resurrection.
Christmas likewise is losing its supernatural component. Increasingly, it’s more about Santa and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman – plus billions in spending for gifts and gatherings that build family closeness.
Strangely, the Christmas season has psychological power to induce feelings of kindness and human closeness. It’s a cultural phenomenon affecting even scientific people who don’t swallow magic tales.A 2017 Pew Research survey found that 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas – but an ever-smaller share of them think it’s about a virgin miraculously giving birth to a god.
“There has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of U.S, adults who say they believe that biblical elements of the Christmas story – that Jesus was born to a virgin, for example – reflect historical events that actually occurred,” Pew reported. More than 80 percent said they would spend the holiday with loved ones, but only 51 percent planned to attend a worship service.
Conservative politicians often rant about a “war on Christmas,” a secular plot to diminish the season – for instance, by saying “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.”
Actually, nature itself – the winter solstice – provides a more profound meaning for this season. For millennia, prehistoric people in the Northern Hemisphere dreaded the worsening cold and dark as the sun sank lower each day. Then, joyfully, the sun began returning in late December. Happy celebrations and sun god worship erupted. Life had hope again. Early Christians didn’t know a date for the birth of Jesus, and observed various times. But in the fourth century, Pope Julius I pulled a clever ploy: He decreed that Jesus was born on Dec. 25, which allowed Christianity to co-opt the merry festival period, taking it away from previous gods.
Happy holidays, everyone.
(Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry.)